Pennsylvania Court Holds Partial Deafness Not a Disability Under ADAAA
A Pennsylvania federal court has held that deafness in one ear is not a disability under the ADA Amendments Act (ADAAA). In Mengel v. Reading Eagle Co. (E.D. Penn.), Christine Mengel, a copy editor and page designer at the Reading Eagle newspaper, ﬁled a complaint alleging she was discriminated against on the basis of her disability and gender when she was laid off during a reduction in force.
Starting in November 2007, Mengel became totally deaf in one ear and had balance problems due to a surgery which removed a brain tumor. Mengel was nonetheless able to perform her job functions without accommodation and received satisfactory evaluations in 2008. In her deposition, Mengel testiﬁed that she was able to hear even though she was deaf in one ear. While she stated that she had difﬁculty hearing in noisy environments such as the newsroom in which she worked, she also testiﬁed that her hearing loss was not a distraction.
In January 2009, the employer decided to perform a reduction in force. The employer executed the reduction in force by rating its employees on a matrix and eliminating the lowest scoring employees. Mengel was the lowest scoring employee in her department and, as a result, was laid off from her position. The court dismissed Mengel’s ADA complaint, holding that her deafness in one ear was insufﬁcient to establish she had a disability under the ADAAA. The court concluded that Mengel failed to establish that her hearing loss in one ear substantially limited her hearing. The court relied on her deposition testimony stating, “She testiﬁed that her deafness in her left ear was not a distraction,” and she could not point to any speciﬁc instances where her hearing loss caused a problem other than she “didn’t hear some things.” While the court noted that Mengel presented evidence she might have been regarded as being disabled, she was unable to establish a causal link between her alleged disability, which arose in 2007, and her termination from employment, which occurred in 2009.
While recognizing that total deafness is a disability, the Mengel court did not merely assume that hearing loss in one ear constitutes a disability. Rather, the court relied on the record to determine if Mengel actually supported her allegations with testimony that demonstrated the hearing loss in one ear was substantially limiting. This decision demonstrates that the determination of whether an employee has an actual disability is still alive and well under the ADAAA.